The Term “Post Scarcity” Could Maybe Use Some Clarifying

I have always found the term post scarcity problematic. The common definition of scarcity defines it as, loosely speaking: insufficient supply to meet demand. If we take this definition at face value then we have achieved post scarcity the moment nobody demands anything. Therefore, we could achieve post scarcity simply by taking happy pills and making ourselves artificially satisfied. Alternately, we might never achieve post scarcity if some cosmic beings somewhere in the universe still want the same rivalrous good, such as to be “undisputed king of the Milky Way”.

Thus when people talk of post scarcity what they often mean is something more like post material scarcity. This isn’t necessarily a great term—it’s added length means it doesn’t roll off the tongue with the same ease—but it is clearer in intent. In the short term, what we should strive for is not necessarily the end of all scarcity, but rather the creation of a world where all of people’s basic material needs are met.

This of course raises the question of what constitutes “basic material needs”. I would propose that the bottom two levels of Maslow’s hierarchy—physiological and safety needs—might be a sufficient starting point, with the added qualification that ideally no one ought to be coerced into work they don’t want to be doing. This landmark alone would constitute a pretty big change to the human condition.

Two Alternate Singularities: Happy Pills and the Holodeck

People talk about the moment artificial intelligence equals and exceeds human intelligence as being an important landmark, or singularity. But it strikes me that there are at least two other major technological landmarks on the horizon. Landmarks that may be almost as transformative and potentially happen much sooner.

HAPPY PILLS

If we can find a way to hijack the human brain and make people feel good and contented no matter what is happening around them, then we will potentially have invented the last product we’ll ever need. Demand for most other goods should fall towards zero since they will no longer produce any utility in the form of increased satisfaction. Furthermore, as a human race we could potentially get stuck at this local maxima point and decide there is no longer a compelling reason to keep innovating and inventing new technologies, provided we can keep producing a steady stream of happy pills. In short, we could all become junkies.

Granted this is extrapolating to the extreme. An intermediate step to consider is the possibility that we simply create better than average recreational drugs. After all it is not necessarily a law of nature that all drugs must have negative side effects. Imagine if we created a stronger version of heroin that was extremely cheap and completely safe. One could imagine adoption of such a drug would be high. Such a development would dramatically transform the economic and political landscape, as many people would effectively “drop out” of society

THE HOLODECK

Alternately, if we can produce truly compelling virtual reality, then once again we will have very little use for many other products. Assuming you have the minimum resource requirements required to keep yourself alive and online, you could live anywhere, perhaps a tiny box-size apartment on a cheap piece of land in the middle of nowhere, and still have a fulfilling life. Once again, as a society, our motivation to keep innovating and inventing could suffer. Why go to space if we can go to a more compelling and safer version of space in our minds?

As an intermediate step, we need not have completely perfect virtual reality to suddenly create tremendous competition with real life experiences. Should you go outside and take a twenty minute trip in the rain to go to your friend’s party? Or should you just stay at home and visit the party virtually while drinking a beer at home? Perhaps your simulation is lacking a sense of smell and the haptic feedback is very incomplete. But how much do you need these senses at a typical party?

People talk a lot about automation of services as a force for change in the economy. But sometimes people forget the other side of the coin: digitization of goods. Quality virtual reality is the ultimate form of digitization. It promises to make unique experiences as abundant as MP3s, and could be as economically disruptive to existing businesses as any other single technology I can think of.

Is Technology Addiction the Real Problem?

In this thirty minute talk, Robert Scoble discusses a wide array of fascinating new technologies that are just now coming to market. What a lot of these technologies have in common is their high degree of personalization. Technology is getting better at figuring out what we want and giving it to us exactly when we want it.

Near the end of the video, Scoble delivers his thesis: When it comes to technology, privacy is not the issue. People are going to get used to their lack of privacy. The bigger concern is addiction.

I agree that on the surface, addiction seems like a menacing issue. We are all familiar with modern stories of technology addiction like the World of Warcraft player profiled in this short film:

But if we are going to talk about addiction we should agree on a basic definition. The one that I have always subscribed to is “continued use in the face of consequences.”

Let me illustrate with a few examples: Suppose you are so addicted to using your smart phone that you are constantly sending texts while driving. As a result you rear end someone with your vehicle. You experience various financial costs, including higher insurance. But instead of learning a lesson, you get your car fixed up and go right back to your old behavior of texting while driving. Continued use in the face of consequences.

In case that doesn’t sound familiar enough, here’s another example. You have a bit of work you need to get done. You sit down to do it, but every ten minutes or so, you can’t resist checking Facebook. You do this even though on some level you kind of hate Facebook and wish it would go away. Inevitably when you check Facebook, at least one link or comment catches your eye, and what was supposed to be a momentary break turns into about half an hour of time wasted. Repeat ad nauseum. Continued use in the face of consequences.

Now these are ordinary, everyday examples, and as such there is a way in which they feel different from the obsessive World of Warcraft player who does nothing else but play a game for 400 days straight. And yet pinpointing the source of this perceived difference is not easy. When it comes to severity of consequences the texting-while-driving example is by far the worst, since in this case the addict is risking large amounts of money and possibly even his life. By contrast, the worst thing that could happen to the World of Warcraft player is a gradual deterioration in his health that probably follows from sitting around all day.

And yet the texting-while-driving addict may strike us as more normal, not because he is any less addicted, but because he still appears to be engaged with the outside world. He is leaving his house; he is driving somewhere; he is communicating with a friend via text. By contrast the World of Warcarft player (even though he plays what could be described as a social game) never leaves his house, makes excuses to his friends about why he can’t go out, and spends most of his time engaged in an alternate fantasy world.

To make the point even more clear, let’s compare World of Warcraft addiction to Facebook addiction. What is the difference really? They are both social networks populated by avatars of real people. The difference is that while World of Warcraft is a virtual world, Facebook is more of what you might call a mirror world.  Facebook attempts to model and integrate with “real life” as we know it, whereas World of Warcraft has no such aspirations.

Now imagine that technology begins to systematically remove the consequences from these addictions. Self driving cars make it so that texting while driving is no longer a concern. Miracle health drugs make it so that you can sit around all day and play World of Warcraft without becoming obese. Intelligent personal assistant software and attention-enhancing drugs make it so that you are able to stay on track while doing your work and avoid being sucked into the distraction of Facebook.

Using my original definition, no consequences means no more addiction. We have just “cured” our addicts.

For this reason I feel like technology addiction is going to be a transitional period—a moment in time when our technology is good enough to lure us into self destructive habits, but not good enough to protect us from the consequences of those habits.

At the end of the day we are left with a new issue that I think will turn out to be more important. And it relates to our level of “engagement with the real world.”

If I give you a holodeck where you can fulfill your wildest fantasies, and you elect to never leave…the correct term for that is not addiction. At least in so far as you suffer no consequences from doing so, and the power bill that keeps the virtual reality machine going continues to get paid on time.

Rather what is interesting about the holodeck scenario is that you have just completely turned your back on the real world. You have withdrawn into your own mind, into a personalized solipsistic fantasy world where you are the one true god. Moreover, you have decided that this private heaven is preferable to the world we all share together, the real world where you don’t always get what you want, and things are often out of your control.

What’s interesting about such scenarios is that with consequences removed from the equation there is not necessarily anything wrong with such behavior, and yet on some level it is still viscerally disturbing.

In the future we are all going to be hopelessly dependent on our technology. That’s already true. In a way it’s a moot point. The big question will be, do you want to withdraw into a world of your own choosing? Or do you want to stay here in “the real world” with us?

Abundance of Links — Democratized Brain Enhancement, Labor Polarization, Decline of Conspicuous Consumption

1. Will Brain Stimulation Technology Become Widely Adopted as a Learning Aid?

Dr. Roi Cohen Kadosh, who has carried out brain stimulation studies at the Department of Experimental Psychology, very definitely has a vision for how TDCS could be used in the future: “I can see a time when people plug a simple device into an iPad so that their brain is stimulated when they are doing their homework, learning French or taking up the piano,” he says.

“This technology overcomes some standard objections to enhancement: It is not a set of cheat notes,” says Julian. “You require effort and hard work to learn. It is just that you get more out of your effort. And because it is cheap, low tech, easily affordable, it could be widely available.”

 2. What If Middle-Class Jobs Disappear?

There are two challenges. One is the sheer speed of adjustment. In a hyper-Schumpeterian economy, the main work consists of destroying someone else’s job…

The second challenge is the nature of the emerging skills mismatch. People who are self-directed and cognitively capable can keep adding to their advantages. People who lack those traits cannot simply be exhorted into obtaining them.

3. The Twilight of the Leisure Class

An end to conspicuous consumption means an end to a consumption arms race where demand can never be sated. There really is only so much you can eat, wear and drive, or click and stream, so if we take the “conspicuous” out of the equation we have a society going down a much different economic path…

The wealthiest of the one-tenth of the one percent are holding the same iPhone and using the same applications as my babysitter. As I write this I am sitting in the walkout basement of my son’s house, using a computer that is identical to that of one of my former billionaire bosses.

Genetic Basis For Happiness?

From an article in the The Economist:

“The adolescents in Dr De Neve’s study were asked to grade themselves from very satisfied to very dissatisfied. Dr De Neve found that those with one long allele were 8% more likely than those with none to describe themselves as very satisfied; those with two long alleles were 17% more likely.”

If satisfaction is in part a function of genetics, and our genetics will eventually be modifiable, then this suggests the problem of human dissatisfaction could some day be tackled at a very low level. What effect would technologically-enhanced satisfaction have on economic demand?